Friday, November 25, 2011

Why I uninstalled Stupid Zombies

Stupid Zombies, for the uninitiated, is a free game for smart phones.  The screen is filled with zombies.  Your character has a gun and limited bullets.  Later on you get different kinds of bullets, which are lined up in the gun and you have to use them in order.  You need to shoot all the zombies.  If you succeed you get one, two or three stars.  There are at least three chapters, each containing at least three stages, each containing at least sixty levels.  It's a big game.  And it encourages you to play until you've gotten three stars on every level.

A week or two before I got a smart phone I saw the guys I hang out with in work playing it.  One gave me a go and it seemed like fun.  So when I got a smart phone, it was one of the first things I downloaded.  I've been playing it more than I should ever since.  Until today, when I uninstalled it.

I did so because I realised I was playing it again, even though I had decided not to.  And I wasn't even enjoying it.  And, on reflection, I wasn't sure I had ever really enjoyed it.  So why had I played it so much?  I wasn't learning anything.  I wasn't acquiring any useful skills.  I wasn't even relaxing, particularly.  And I just didn't actually find it fun.  But I wanted to defeat it, to clear it.  And I found it engaging and compelling.  I have a theory now as to why.

One of the striking things about the game is that there doesn't seem to be much of an order to the levels.  There are 600 of them (I just looked this up), so I guess it would be hard to have them in increasing difficulty.  But the way it is seems silly.  I've gone through 10 levels in a row clearing each on the first try, only to get stuck on a hard level for half an hour, or have to come back to it several times.  And that was pretty normal game play.  The hard levels are sometimes pleasantly challenging.  And I did enjoy clearing even the easy ones a little.  Even the ones that you could accidentally clear with one bullet when picking up the phone.   But the real thrill was defeating the difficult levels.  And it reminded me of something.  I remembered hearing that a pigeon that gets food some of the times it pecks at a button will keep pecking long after a pigeon that gets food every time it pecks the button stops.  I wasn't enjoying myself, I was being conditioned.

Extra Credits have discussed the Skinner Box and how it applies to video games much more eloquently than I could: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/the-skinner-box.

And the reason the designers of the game want me to be conditioned to keep tapping through the 600 levels of the game even though I'm not enjoying myself?  The ads.  I am familiar with the internet method of making money where 'free' products are paid for by ads.  I'm fine with that.  I like it actually, as I basically never click through on any of the ads and I still get these things for free.  But the ads in Stupid Zombies are offensive.  Even back when I thought I liked the game I hated the ads.  The ones that come up between levels, sometimes, where you have to click the phone's back button to get rid of them (nothing tells you this, you just have to work it out) are annoying enough.  But the little banner ads at the bottom of the screen that actually prevent you from playing the game properly?  Well, they'd almost make a GOOD game not worth playing.  Not to mention the fact that it's the same couple of ads over and over again, for products and services I wouldn't buy even if they weren't obviously dodgy in some way.

The thing that really gets to me though, is that the guys in work still think this is a good game.  The 26270 people who gave it a five star review on the Android market and the 8068 people who gave it a four star review thought it was a good game (compared to 2437 three star, 735 two star and 1843 one star).  I feel like all those people are being fooled.  And I feel sorry for them.

TLDR: Don't download Stupid Zombies.  It isn't a fun puzzle game.  It's a skinner box with annoying ads.  And watch the video I linked to.

1 comment:

  1. The video is a fairly good synopsis of Skinner's most basic research, but it does show up one of the big misunderstandings - the depiction of operant conditioning as something "cheap and easy" or morally dubious, as something manipulative. However, all behaviour is shaped by operant conditioning (The genetic elements gives you the staring point - an inborn behavioural repertoire and what your primary reinforcers are). The "alternatives" to Skinner box conditioning outlined in the video are all simply more complex conditioned secondary reinforcers.(Or, in the case of novelty (which is the reinforcer that creates curiosity), probably a primary reinforcer). It's true that variable interval schedules (gambling) can be used to create not-useful behaviour patterns, but any time you're playing a game that IS fun, you're being conditioned too. You've been conditioned to find stories fun, to find challenge fun, to find excellent cakes fun. And there's nothing wrong with using knowledge of how to condition behaviour to improve conditions and access to reinforcers.

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